According to official state government data, approximately 120,000 workers’ compensation claims are filed in Washington each year, of which 75 percent are filed through Labor & Industries (L&I), and 25 percent are filed against self-insured employers. In some cases, an injury prevents a worker from returning to their previous position or occupation. L&I provides vocational assessment, which can sometimes lead to job retraining.
At The Walthew Law Firm, our legal team has represented injured workers in Washington for more than 80 years. We want to make sure that all workers understand their rights, responsibilities, and options as it relates to vocational benefits. Here, our Washington workers’ comp attorneys provide an overview of your vocational options in an L&I workers’ compensation claim. If you have specific questions about vocational benefits, please do not hesitate to contact our Seattle office for immediate help.
Vocational Training in Washington: An Overview
As defined by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), vocational retraining is a benefit designed to help injured workers obtain the job skills they need to re-enter the workforce in a new position. Under RCW 51.32.095, “(2)Vocational rehabilitation services may be provided to an injured worker when in the sole discretion of the supervisor or the supervisor’s designee vocational rehabilitation is both necessary and likely to make the work employable at gainful employment.”
During the vocational assessment, L&I’s assigned vocational counselor will take a complete work and educational history from the injured worker, determine transferable skills (skills acquired through prior education, training, and experience), consider the physical impacts of the industrial injury and any pre-existing, disabling conditions to determine eligibility for vocational retraining. RCW 51.32.095 lists the other employment options which must be considered prior to any recommendation for retraining. If an injured worker qualifies for any jobs in options (a) through (h) below, then vocational retraining will not be offered.
(a) Return to the previous job with the same employer;
(b) Modification of the previous job with the same employer, including transitional return to work;
(c) A new job with the same employer in keeping with any limitations or restrictions;
(d) Modification of a new job with the same employer, including transitional return to work;
(e) Modification of the previous job with a new employer;
(f) A new job with a new employer or self-employment based upon transferable skills;
(g) Modification of a new job with a new employer;
(h) A new job with a new employer or self-employment involving on-the-job training;
(i) Short-term retraining.
A Vocational Counselor Will Be Assigned
If L&I determines vocational retraining is appropriate, an individual vocational counselor will be assigned. Among other things, the vocational counselor is responsible for helping an injured worker choose and develop a job retraining plan. This is called Vocational Plan Development. Plan Development will include:
- A comprehensive work assessment;
- Development and implementation of the vocational plan;
- Vocational retraining/rehabilitation services; and
- Other support services as deemed necessary.
Once a retraining plan is identified by the vocational counselor and approved by L&I, a worker will be given the opportunity to select one of two separate retraining paths:
- Option 1: Follow the vocational retraining plan identified by the counselor and approved by L&I.
- Option 2: Opt-out of the pre-approved vocational plan and use the available resources to develop your own plan.
Vocational Benefits in Washington: An Overview of Option 1
Vocational Option 1 is the job retraining program identified by the vocational counselor and pre-approved by L&I. Notably, this option is the “automatic” option. If a worker does not respond to L&I once the plan is approved and communicated to the injured worker, it will be the default selection. As of July 1st, 2020, an injured worker is eligible for a maximum of $19,033.67 in vocational benefits. Here are the three key things about L&I Vocational Option 1:
- There is a two-year time limit for job retraining/rehabilitation;
- Time-loss compensation will be paid as long as the worker participates in the retraining plan; and
- Medical benefits can be paid as long as the worker participates in the retraining plan.
Option 1 vocational retraining program will not necessarily be approved for two years. Instead, the length of the program will depend entirely on the retraining “needs” of the individual worker. Injured workers must cooperate with the vocational counselor through Plan Development and retraining. Otherwise, L&I may suspend (stop) time-loss compensation and medical benefits until the worker is cooperative in the process.
Vocational Benefits in Washington: An Overview of Option 2
Washington does not require injured workers to follow any specific job-retraining plan. If a retraining plan is written and approved by L&I and Vocational Option 2 is selected, the injured worker can opt-out of the pre-approved vocational retraining plan. Instead of following the recommendations from L&I, an injured worker can utilize the Option 1 retraining costs to develop their own plan. For example, the Option 1 retraining plan provides for books, tuition, and other costs of $10,000. The injured worker can select Option 2 and use that $10,000 for a different retraining program. There are some drawbacks to going with Option 2. If L&I Option 2 is selected, the following will happen:
- Vocational retraining funds must be used within five years of selection of Option 2;
- An award of nine months of time-loss compensation will be paid out every 2 weeks;
- Medical benefits will end; and
- The workers’ compensation claim will be closed.
Option 2 allows flexibility to develop a different retraining program than the one suggested and approved by L&I. You will have the flexibility to use the funding for a retraining plan you choose rather than something chosen by L&I’s vocational counselor. It can be used towards tuition, books, fees, supplies, equipment, and tools related to your retraining program. For specific information, see L&I’s Vocational Option 2 pamphlet or other qualifying educational or job-licensing programs. At the same time, it is important to remember that with Option 2, you will not be paid time-loss compensation while you attend school but will be strictly limited to nine months from the time you select Option 2. Finally, your claim will close, and your medical treatment will stop.
Not Sure What Option to Pursue? An Attorney Can Help
Navigating the L&I claims process is complicated. If you are unsure as to what vocational option is the right choice for your situation, you are certainly not alone.
Washington law clearly states that both Vocational Options 1 and 2 are valid. Most injured workers will benefit from Option 1, as it allows them to receive their time-loss compensation throughout the retraining process – up to two years. The decision you make regarding your vocational options can and will determine future benefits under your workers’ compensation claim. If you are weighing your options for vocational rehabilitation, an experienced Seattle, WA L&I attorney can help.
Schedule a Free Consultation With L&I Workers’ Comp Lawyer in Washington
At The Walthew Law Firm, our top-rated Washington workers’ comp lawyers provide proactive and effective representation when you need help the most. If you have any questions about your options in your L&I workers’ comp claim, we are more than ready to help. Contact us now to set up a free, no commitment case evaluation. From our law offices in Seattle and Everett, we represent workers in L&I claims throughout the region, including in Tacoma, Renton, Federal Way, Kent, Lynnwood, Redmond, Kirkland, Vashon Island, Puyallup, Bainbridge Island, Snohomish, and Marysville.